Epic vs. Ikon ski pass war reshapes U.S. ski industry

’Mega-passes’ keep gobbling larger share of the market

The ski pass war between Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass and Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass reshaped the industry last season.

For the first time ever, skier and snowboard rider visits generated by season passes exceeded those from multi- and single-day lift tickets, according to an annual study performed for the National Ski Areas Association.

“Overall, the proportion of visits from season passes rose to 45.5 percent of visits while visits from daily/multi-day tickets were down to 43.5 percent,” said the Kottke End of Season Survey 2019-20 commissioned by NSAA. “Thus, the share of visits from season passes has overtaken daily/multi-day tickets for the first time.”

The trend has been a long-time coming. Season pass visits have increased nationally for the past five seasons.

Pass use climbed from 43 percent of total visits in 2017-18 to 43.4 percent the following season and 45.5 percent last season.

Meanwhile, daily and multi-ticket use dropped from 48.8 percent in 2017-18 to 43.5 percent the following year and the same percent last season.

Last ski season was cut short by the abrupt closure of most resorts in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, so it’s unknown how spring break skiing would have affected the pass use versus lift ticket sales.

However, it is clear that this season the pandemic will promote pass use. Many resorts under the Vail umbrella are requiring reservations to hit the slopes this season.

“If you want to ski the busiest of Vail Resorts’ Mountains during the holidays, you’d better hold an Epic Pass. Without it, you won’t be able to make a reservation,” said the website, which touts itself as the ski travel experts.

The Ikon Pass also requires reservations for use at some resorts, such as Aspen Snowmass. A $150 upgrade to the Ikon allowed buyers to ski or ride five days at Aspen Snowmass resorts as well as five days at Jackson Hole this winter.

Data wasn’t immediately available from Aspen Snowmass on use of ski passes versus lift tickets last season. In addition to its own passes and the Ikon, Skico also participates in the Mountain Collective ski pass.

The national trend of increased season pass use parallels the ramping up of competition between the two industry heavyweights. Alterra Mountain Co. was created in April 2017 to challenge Vail Resorts’ industry domination. Vail was adding to its lineup of resorts and heavily promoting its Epic Pass — a relatively inexpensive product good at multiple resorts.

Alterra was formed by KSL Capital Partners LLC and the Lester Crown family, owners of Aspen Skiing Co. Alterra created the Ikon Pass to counter the Epic.

In a book about ski industry changes, “Ski Inc. 2020,” Chris Diamond wrote that the “mega-passes” are good for the resorts and good for consumers. The cutthroat competition gives skiers and riders access to the slopes at a good price, Diamond said.

The resorts benefit because the passes encourage people to ski more often and spend more on ski lessons, rentals and dining. Skiers and riders also return more often to resorts that used to be once-in-a-lifetime experience, he said.

A variety of other passes are offered, though none with the same firepower as the Epic and Ikon. The Epic Pass provides unlimited access to 37 ski resorts and additional days at several other North American and international resorts. The full Ikon Pass provides unlimited access at 15 resorts and up to seven days each at another 27 destinations.

The Mountain Collective provides two days of skiing each at 23 participating resorts, including Aspen Snowmass.

Smaller resorts are trying not to get lost in the shuffle. The Indy Pass added 15 resorts to its lineup this season. It now provides access to 59 small, independent resorts in North America, though none in Colorado.


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